Belgium · travel

Christmas in Europe: Antwerp

On our last day for all things Christmas Market, we had a choice between Antwerp and Ghent before heading off to Brussels airport. There was a three hour delay to Ghent so we settled on Antwerp.

IMG_20151211_150947.jpgI say settled like we lost out on something when in reality, Antwerp was a welcome jolt from all the sleepy towns we had perused.

All I can say is thank god for phones with GPS. After some careful plugging-in of phrases, we found public garages in a central location which really, truly cut down on what would have been a super stressful afternoon of parallel parking. It ended up costing about $5 for the entire day.

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Antwerp has about half a dozen markets strewn around. Like Bruges, they were fairly commercial and, given that we were in a larger city, some of the shopkeepers seemed less friendly and less keen to make a sale. For example, at the main market, we stumbled upon schokokuss- wafer cookies with a swirl of soft marshmallow, dipped in chocolate and sometimes flavored. They are essentially small bites of heaven. We just wanted two- one for each of us- as they were difficult to fly with but he would only sell us twelve. Looking back, I probably could have managed twelve before the flight…

In any case, it seemed a bit off. Other stalls held little glass birds for trees. Most looked about the size of hummingbirds in the same jewel-toned colors. Others peddled scarves, belts, plastic-y straight-from-China, things. It wasn’t til we made it to the Schelde that we found someone piecing fabric and leather scraps into wallets and bags. And oddly, she was visiting from Paris.

So giving up the markets, the only thing left was the city itself. Ornate and gritty, it rose up from the concrete with heavy gilded doors, mouldings, and a youthful exuberance despite its age.

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If there are two things that you carve time for in Antwerp, let it be these two: The Chocolate Line and Rubenshuis.

The Chocolate Line is located off one of the main shopping streets and houses modern chocolates in a Rococo setting. There are two tasting rooms and in the back room you can watch chocolatiers crank out pralines and truffles. The Chocolate Line is supposed to be the so-called “rock n roll” chocolate shop in Belgium. They feature avant-garde flavor combinations such as Cebolla (fried onions with almond), and Bollywood (saffron and curry). While I didn’t go for the Cebolla, I did get a small box and after tasting a few in the hotel that night, I really wish I had loaded up. Don’t make my mistake- they do not ship.IMG_20151211_151116.jpg

Many truffle makers only have a hint of whatever flavoring they’ve added. Not here. Each chocolate is distinct and potent- the flavor really sings in these. Often the filling is very soft- a tad beyond caramel sauce and below your typical thick ganache. So, so satisfying and addictive.

What I tried:

Cabernet-Sauvignon: caramel with Cab/Sauv vinegar and pine nut. LOVED this one.

praline cabernet-sauvignon

Brasil- lime jelly, cilantro, chili, cachaca rum. Also loved.

praline brasil

Red Earth- Jelly and crisp beet root with hazelnut praline

praline Red Earth

Bangkok- Lemongrass

praline Bangkok

 

 

 

 

Yuzu- Raspberry and Yuzu caramel. Beautiful, bright flavors.

praline Yuzu

Apero- vodka, passionfruit, lime.

praline Apero

Framboise- the richest raspberry.

praline Framboise

Marrakech- white chocolate and mint. Beautiful and subdued.

praline Marrakech

Bollywood- saffron and curry. Smoky and refined.

praline Bollywood

After loading up on a thousand little chocolate jewels and gorging yourself, please, please do waddle up the road to Rubenshuis, if only to comfort my former art historian heart. The house was built in the early 1600s by painter Peter Paul Rubens and his (excessively rich and lovely) wife, Isabella Brant. Here, he painted and entertained guests of various royal lineages, the Medicis, patrons, students, and his contemporaries of the art world. It features some of his works along with items from his household in a fully restored city oasis. His courtyard overflows with leaded glass and wisteria with Venuses strewn about. Inside, ornately carved furniture, typical Dutch pastoral-scene tiles, embossed and gilded leather wallpaper (seriously), and enormous fireplaces can be seen throughout. I love historic house tours. I love placing my feet in the worn grooves of the stairs and running my hand across a polished banister shining only from the hands who have touched it before me. I love knowing that the masters of these homes have stepped where I’ve stepped and touched what I’ve touched as if in those moments we are connected. Nomatter what anyone says, objects are important because they carry that weight of the person who owned them. So please, do go and geek out over this painter and his fabulous house.

…did I mention his house is fabulous?

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